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The 2014 World Cup May Turn Ugly

David Goldblatt says protests this summer in Brazil may be an indication of more to come

Author David Goldblatt discusses Brazil and its soccer culture Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at Duke University. Photo credit: Jon Gardiner, Duke Photography
Author David Goldblatt discusses Brazil and its soccer culture Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at Duke University. Photo credit: Jon Gardiner, Duke Photography

The World Cup, a quadrennial celebration of global soccer, may well turn ugly next summer in Brazil.

That's the conclusion drawn by David Goldblatt, an English writer and social commentator and author of "The Ball is Round: The Definitive History of Global Soccer."

Speaking at Duke Tuesday, Goldblatt said he expects riots next year that mirror those that took over Brazil for a chunk of this summer. While Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup -- a World Cup tuneup event -- protesters hit the streets in huge numbers, their frustrations fueled by a maddeningly wide gap between Brazil's rich and poor.

Many criticized Brazil's emphasis on soccer, long the primary source of its national pride. Protesters asked how, in a nation that spends so little on basic services like education and health care, can so much be spent on a soccer tournament?

"There will be a World Cup, and there will be 48 games," Goldblatt said. "But I think it will be played out against a backdrop of violence."

In a 90-minute talk, Goldblatt painted a bleak picture of Brazil as laughably corrupt and dismissive of its poor, a nation that sets soccer above all else in determining its national identity.

"The one thing the world unambiguously knows about Brazil is that it plays football," he said. "But football in Brazil has come to represent the very worst feature of Brazil's culture and society."

Goldblatt's blistering talk drew parallels between corrupt Brazilian politicians and equally morally bankrupt soccer officials who regularly scoop from the public till. He opened his talk with video of a Brazilian soccer administrator brazenly pocketing a soccer medal during a post-tournament awards ceremony. He described a soccer infrastructure that endorsed and engaged in nepotism, match-fixing and blatant disregard for fan well-being at crumbling stadiums filled with far more people than is deemed safe.

The coming World Cup, and the Olympic Summer Games to follow in 2016, are largely seen as an opportunity for Brazil to show off improvements made during the last decade, during which time the national economy has made some strides.

But recent spending on World Cup facilities pushed some citizens to the brink, Goldblatt said. One new stadium alone, in Brasilia, cost a reported $750 million, a project organizers justified by saying it would be the eventual home to a professional team in that city.

The problem, Goldblatt noted Tuesday, is that the 80,000-seat stadium will house a team that averages about 1,100 fans per game.

"We're all aware of the white elephant?" he said. "We're talking a herd of white elephants."

Goldblatt spoke at the invitation of the Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics, a new venture encouraging public intellectualism. Goldblatt, an author and journalist who also teaches at the University of Bristol in England, fits that bill perfectly, said Laurent Dubois, the Duke forum's faculty director.

Brazil is an issue that won't leave the front pages anytime soon, Dubois added.

"I don't think people understand the magnitude of what has been unfolding in Brazil," he said. "It is a really potentially powerful moment."